Germany made it three victories from three in a European Championship group-stage campaign for the first time in their history following their 2-1 victory over Denmark.
They have now won their last 14 competitive matches, a German national team record. After a perfect qualifying campaign and negotiating the Group of Death with flying colours, at least in terms of results, they only enhanced their reputation as favourites ahead of the knockout phase. Yet there remains room for improvement if they are to go all the way and dethrone Spain.
Nine points from nine is a fine accomplishment in its own right in the toughest group of Euro 2012, but Germany’s performances did not necessarily reflect their points total in the end. Granted, their competitors were all ranked amongst the top 10 in the world by Fifa, but laborious would better describe their group stage rather than the convincing display seen two years ago in South Africa, a comparison that inevitably arises given the high standards they created for themselves since. Yet Germany have improved and are maturing before our eyes, but like any budding team, there are bumps on the road that need ironing out before the side can truly reach their potential.
Although team spirit is really high in the Mannschaft camp, there remains a sense of cautious optimism throughout the squad and coaching staff, and rightfully so. Joachim Low noted that the Greece clash in the quarter-finals will bring with it its own difficulties while Sami Khedira emphasised the importance of not underestimating their opponents.
DFB president Wolfgang Niersbach, meanwhile, played down the team’s favourites tag. All the while there is a feeling that things can and should improve and that their showdown against the Greeks should not be taken for granted.
So where do Germany need to improve to go all the way? For one, they have to be more cautious and focused against teams that counterattack quickly. If their first three games proved anything it was that the Nationalelf consistently looked vulnerable when attacking in numbers because they invariably leave their back line exposed. After the Denmark game, Low pointed out that they allowed their opponents too much space and, sure enough, the few chances that the Danes created all came on the break. It was something Low heeded before the match, but something the team struggled with nevertheless. Against Portugal, the team faced similar difficulties against the pace of Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo, and only Manuel Neuer spared the team’s blushes in the final stages.
|THREE UNDERPERFORMING GERMANS|
|His work rate cannot be faulted as he has frequently found himself in good positions down the left, but was eventually stopped in his tracks. However, a goal against Denmark may be a crowning moment.
|Outshone by defensive partner Hummels in the group matches, the Bayern Munich man has struggled to deal with pace at times, despite not making any gaping errors at the back.|
|Forced to play second fiddle to the in-form Mario Gomez, the striker made little impact as a substitute in the opening two games. Still, his link-up play with Ozil versus Denmark will have encouraged Low.
Although their defence has grown in leaps and bounds in the group stages, they remain weak in the set-piece department. The marking on dead-balls against Portugal left much to be desired and Low’s men were lucky when Pepe’s header bounced off the goal line and out. Denmark further exposed that weakness and made Germany pay when Nicklas Bendtner got between both Lars Bender and Holger Badstuber all too easily to head the ball to an unmarked Michael Krohn-Delhi. Low admittedly prioritises other aspects of the game but with set pieces being such volatile and game-changing scenarios, he might be wise to reconsider those priorities, especially against a Greece side that scored more goals from dead-balls than any other side in qualifying.
In attack, Germany have also struggled against teams who, for a lack of a better term, "park the bus". Mesut Ozil noted after the Portugal encounter that at times the Portuguese defended with eight or nine man in their own half, making it next to impossible to find spaces to play the ball in. Similarly, Thomas Muller, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez had two markers near them at all times and were rarely allowed to come inside to give the likes of Ozil, Schweinsteiger and Khedira support. Against Denmark, Germany had 227 passes in the attacking third compared to Denmark’s 97 but managed only four shots on goal. The same problems were evident against the Portuguese in which they managed as many shots on target as their opponents, despite having the majority of possession.
Sure enough, Germany’s conscious transition from a direct counterattacking side to a more methodical passing team is still far from finished. With more and more opponents taking a reactive approach in modern football, the Mannschaft will have to become better at thinking outside the box and circumventing compact and organised teams like Denmark, who defend in numbers and give the opposition little space to work with.
Assistant coach Hansi Flick said before the Netherlands clash that since the World Cup, their opponents do not attack them as freely as England and Argentina did in South Africa, and instead take a much more defensive approach from the offset. There are exceptions like the Dutch at the Euros or in their friendly last year, but for the most part Germany now face Spain’s dilemma; playing against teams who defend first and are set up to stifle their creativity.
Low is aware of all these issues, though, and pointed out that they specifically needed to be better offensively against Greece. Germany are no doubt in a better position than they were two years ago. The only question then is whether all the right elements can come together in time to reap the rewards in Polan-Ukraine.